Painting Pandora’s story 1

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Pandora (1871), oil on canvas, 131 × 79 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Few classical myths remained almost undiscovered and untold in paintings until the nineteenth century. The story of Pandora and her ‘box’ is one that was almost unknown in painting until 1850, when it suddenly became very popular. This article and tomorrow’s look at most of the surviving paintings telling this tale.

One reason for Pandora’s late discovery is that her myths appear in less popular sources: Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days. These are among the oldest of the Greek anthologies of myth, dating back to around 750 BCE, even now are not as accessible as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and deal with more ‘difficult’ stories.

The story of Pandora and her ‘box’ is told most fully in Works and Days, where she’s the original woman, created by Hephaestus (Roman: Vulcan) for Zeus, as punishment for humans receiving the gift of fire which had been stolen by Prometheus. After she was formed from earth by Hephaestus, other gods gave her properties to determine her nature.

Athena dressed her in a silvery gown, and taught her needlecraft and weaving. Aphrodite shed grace on her head, together with cruel longing and cares. Hermes gave her a shameful mind and deceitful nature, together with the power of speech, including the ability to tell lies. Other gifts were provided by Persuasion, the Charities, and the Horae.

Pandora also carried with her a large earthenware jar (pithos, in Greek) containing toil and sickness that bring death to men, diseases, and a myriad of other pains. Zeus gave her as a gift to Epimetheus, brother of Prometheus. She then opened her jar, and released its evils into the earth and sea. The only thing remaining in the jar was Hope, who stayed under its lip.

This marked the beginning of the second age of mankind, its Silver Age, in which people knew birth and death, as humans had become subject to death, and Pandora brought birth too. In later accounts, Epimetheus married Pandora, and the couple had a daughter Pyrrha, who married Deucalion with whom she survived the flood.


John Dixon Batten (1860-1932), The Creation of Pandora (1913), tempera on fresco, 128 x 168 cm, Reading University, Reading, England. Wikimedia Commons.

John Dixon Batten’s The Creation of Pandora was painted anachronistically in egg tempera on a fresco ground by 1913. Batten was one of the late adherents of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and is now almost forgotten. This work had been exhibited in a commercial gallery, and was acquired by the University of Reading, England, shortly before the First World War. Deemed unfashionable in 1949, it was put into storage and quietly forgotten until its rediscovery in 1990.

Pandora is at the centre, having just been fashioned out of earth by Hephaestus, who stands at the left, his foot on his anvil. Behind them, other blacksmiths work metal in his forge. At the right, Athena is about to place her gift of a robe about Pandora’s figure, and other gods queue behind to offer their contributions.

The jar

Jean Cousin (1500–1589), Eva Prima Pandora (c 1550), oil on panel, 97 x 150 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

As with other classical myths, at the time that Jean Cousin painted Eva Prima Pandora, in about 1550, it had been mixed with Christian religious narrative, in this case of Eve and the Fall of Mankind. No longer clothed in Athena’s silvery gown, Eve/Pandora lies naked, propped against a human skull. Her left hand clutches the dreaded jar, which she hasn’t yet opened. Her right hand holds a fruiting sprig of the apple tree, an allusion to the traditional Biblical story of Eve. Coiled around her left arm is a serpent, another reference to the Fall of Mankind.

Henry Howard (1769-1847), The Opening of Pandora’s Vase (1834), oil on panel, 76.6 x 166.5 cm, Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. The Athenaeum.

It was the now-forgotten Henry Howard who first painted The Opening of Pandora’s Vase in 1834. Pandora crouches to duck the torrent of woe, evil and pain streaming from the jar, as Epimetheus tries in vain to reseal its lid. This adheres faithfully to the story as told by Hesiod in his Works and Days.

The box

At some time between about 1834 and 1860, the story of Pandora with her jar of evils became conflated with that of Psyche, who had a box which she couldn’t open. The result was the tale still told about Pandora and her box of evils.

Louis Hersent (1777–1860) (attr), Pandora Reclining in a Wooded Landscape (date not known), oil on canvas, 138 x 173 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

This undated painting attributed to Louis Hersent of Pandora Reclining in a Wooded Landscape gives this revised account, with the box firmly shut in Pandora’s right hand, and the motif is an uncommitted combination of landscape, nude figure, and vague narrative.

In the 1870s, this suddenly became one of the most popular subjects for mythological paintings. This doesn’t appear to have been the result of it being told in another creative medium, though.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Pandora (1871), oil on canvas, 131 × 79 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s first painting of Pandora, completed in 1871, shows a moody, brooding Pandora, modelled by Jane Morris. She has just cracked open the lid of the jewelled casket held in her left hand, and it emits a stream of noxious red smoke. As this coils around her head winged figures appear in the fumes.

This was one of Rossetti’s earlier paintings of Jane Morris, the wife of his friend William Morris, and the subject of Rossetti’s late passionate obsession. It was commissioned for 750 guineas by John Graham, who was so pleased with the result that he exhibited it, against Rossetti’s wishes, in Glasgow the following year. Graham had made his money in cotton manufacture and trade with India, and was a keen collector of Pre-Raphaelite art.

Rossetti’s source for the story of Pandora was most probably Lemprière’s dictionary of classical mythology, one of the first sources to refer erroneously to Pandora’s box, not jar. The inscription on the side of the jewel casket reads “Nascitur ignescitur”, meaning born of flames.

Jules Lefebvre (1834–1912), Pandora (1872), oil on canvas, 132 × 63 cm, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Wikimedia Commons.

Jules Lefebvre was another artist who painted Pandora more than once. This initial version from 1872 shows her walking with the fateful box held in both hands, its lid firmly shut. Ominous smoke rises from a series of fumaroles in the ground around her. She is nude, wears an unusual coronet, and there is a six-pointed star above her head.

Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889), Pandora (1873), oil on canvas, 70.2 x 49.2 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Wikimedia Commons.

Next was Alexandre Cabanel’s portrait of the Swedish soprano Christine Nilsson as Pandora, from 1873. As a portrait rather than a faithful account of the myth, the box is closed, almost concealed, and its significance suppressed.

Paul Césaire Gariot (1811-1880), Pandora’s Box (1877), oil on panel, 81 × 56.2 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1877, the elderly Paul Césaire Gariot’s Pandora’s Box places her in a primeval world of rock, studying the closed box intently, wrestling internally with her desire to open it.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Pandora (1878), coloured chalks, 100.8 × 66.7 cm, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The following year, Dante Gabriel Rossetti make a chalk study for a second painting of Pandora, again using Jane Morris as his model. Her face shows a faint agony this time, as a decorative golden stream emerges from the crack in the lid. Here the inscription reads Ultima manet spes, hope remains last, a candidate perhaps for Rossetti’s own epitaph.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), Pandora (1881), media and dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema sought a compromise with the original myth in his Pandora of 1881, in which she holds not a box but a small pot, suitably decorated with a Sphinx. In what appears to be a skilfully painted watercolour, Pandora has not yet given way to the temptation to open the pot.

Jules Lefebvre (1834–1912), Pandora (1882), oil on canvas, 96.5 × 74.9 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Jules Lefebvre’s second painting of Pandora made in 1882, a decade after his first, places her in profile next to the sea. She has a star just above her forehead, but that has become five-pointed rather than six, perhaps to dodge any Jewish connotations. His previous gentle narrative has all but vanished too.


Wikipedia on the myth of Pandora.